Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing just celebrated its 25th anniversary. The movie is considered by many critics to be one of the best ever made, as well as a milestone in African-American cinema. It follows a day in the life of a community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, as racial tensions escalate after a young black man is killed by police. Do the Right Thing was very controversial when it was released in 1989, with claims the film was "anti-white" and some in the media actually warning the public that African-Americans may riot because of the movie.
But the movie is as topical and relevant as it was almost three-decades ago, especially given recent news events. Follow beneath the fold for more ....
Let me tell you the story of right hand-left hand. It's a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: these five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand: the hand of love. The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. I mean, it looks like the right hand--Love--is finished. But hold on, stop the presses; the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes now, that's right. Ooh, it's a devastating right and Hate is hurt. He's down. Left-Hand Hate KO-ed by Love. —Radio RaheemDo the Right Thing comes out of the racial politics that surrounded New York City during the 1980s. There were multiple incidents that seemed to divide the city along racial lines (e.g., Bernhard Goetz's vigilante shootings, Tawana Brawley's rape allegations, Michael Stewart's death in police custody, etc.), as well as three prominent cases where in which mobs killed young black men that happened to step foot into the wrong neighborhood. Do the Right Thing explores that racial tension, but it does it by first giving the audience a cast of characters who fit together in an urban community and then shows the anger and resentments as the cracks grow bigger and things break apart.
Our guide into the community is Mookie (Lee), an underachiever delivering pizza with a young baby and a girlfriend (Rosie Perez) who wants something better. As Mookie moves through the neighborhood on a hot summer day, Mr. Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson) is on the radio, the Korean shop owners are tending to their store, children are playing, and people are sitting on their stoops. Mother Sister (Ruby Dee) looks out her window, fending off the advances of Da Mayor (Ossie Davis). Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) is a young activist looking for ways to pick a fight and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is blasting Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" on his boombox. Mookie knows everyone and everyone likes Mookie, including his boss Sal (Danny Aiello) who owns a pizzeria that's been in the neighborhood as the demographics have shifted from Italian to African-American and Puerto Rican. Sal has two sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), who help him run the business. Pino sees the community through his racism and is sick of what Bedford-Stuyvesant has become. Lee's writing allows you to get to know these characters, laugh with them, analyze their flaws and understand their viewpoint.
Do the Right Thing ends with Mookie and Sal confronting each other, and conflicting quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X about the use of violence. The movie leaves it up to the audience to decide whether anyone grew from what happened or learned a damn thing.
- Howard Beach to Eric Garner and Michael Brown: Most of the story elements for the conflict in Do the Right Thing come from the killing of Michael Griffith in 1986. Griffith was hit by a car and killed trying to escape from a group of white men who had beaten his friends with baseball bats after eating at a pizzeria in Howard Beach. While the details of the crime are much different than what happens in Do the Right Thing, Lee used bits and pieces from the incident to build the story for the movie: the conflict between Italians and African-Americans, the baseball bat and the pizzeria. Radio Raheem's death is based on the death of Michael Stewart in 1983. With the recent death of Eric Garner, Lee edited together the footage of Garner being put in a police chokehold with the death of Radio Raheem, as well as hung banners commemorating Garner's and Michael Brown's lives.
- Discrimination doesn't make sense: One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is the one where Mookie questions Pino about his beliefs. Pino makes exceptions and excuses for how some black people aren't really black. It doesn't make any sense because prejudice isn't logical. It exists to exist because of ignorance and has all sorts of permutations (e.g. I like gay people, but not the ones that "act gay.") And that symptom extends to almost all of the characters in one way or another. While Sal thinks of himself as much a part of the community as Mookie or anyone else, Pino's behavior can be seen as a reflection of something under the surface of Sal. Those views had to come from somewhere, and when pushed hard enough the N-word flies out of Sal's mouth during the confrontation with Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem. And as much as the black characters feel frustrated and devoid of power, the treatment of the Koreans as "others" by those in the community is not much better.
- Mookie's choice: One of the most debated plot points of the film is the ending and Mookie's choice to throw the trash can. Some people have interpreted it as a choice made to save Sal's life from an angry mob, the argument being that it redirects the violence towards property instead of people. However, Spike Lee has stated in commentaries and interviews that Mookie's choice is about frustration and finally being fed up. He's also said that he thinks it's telling that more people get worked up about the destruction to Sal's pizzeria and how the "good guy" Mookie starts it off than the death of Radio Raheem.
I wanna clear up something once and for all ... Mookie did not throw the garbage can through the window to divert the mob from jumping on Sal. [Mookie] threw the garbage can through the window because he just saw one of his best friends get murdered in cold blood by NYPD.
- Joe Klein was an idiot in 1989 too: As mentioned in the intro, this film was very controversial when it was initially released. Most of that controversy was based on media talking heads claiming that scenes like the one above would incite African-Americans to violence. Among those sounding that alarm were David Denby and Joe Klein, making an inherently clunky and racist argument that black people wouldn't be able to control themselves after seeing a movie, and would leave the theater and start burning down neighborhoods. Klein's article in the June 26, 1989, issue of New York Magazine warned readers that audiences would come out of the theater and react violently all across America, hurting David Dinkins chances at being mayor.
- The Crown Heights Riot: Two-years after Do the Right Thing, rioting occurred for three days in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn after an accident in which a car driven by a Hasidic Jew killed a 7-year-old black child. Just as simmering tensions between Italian and African-American communities boil to the surface in the film, the accident brought out resentments and animosities between the black community and Orthodox Jews living in Crown Heights. The Crown Heights Riots are thought to have been a factor in David Dinkins' defeat in 1993, and the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor.
- The unofficial non-sequel: Mookie appears again in Lee's 2012 film Red Hook Summer. Lee has made it explicitly clear that he doesn't consider Red Hook Summer to be a sequel to Do the Right Thing. However, during promotion for Red Hook Summer, Lee offered what he thinks happened to Mookie and Sal after the end of Do the Right Thing.
From Oliver Lyttelton at Indiewire:
"Sal left Bed Stuy," Lee told us, before adding, with laughter, "If he would have known it'd be gentrified he would have stayed. Sal, with insurance money, rebuilt his place from the ground up, in Red Hook. And he was having trouble with the Mexicans he hired, they just couldn't deliver like Mookie. They always get the wrong address, pizza's cold, people complaining. So Sal called Mookie, who's unemployed at the time. And Mookie said 'I'll think about it, [but] you've got to make sure that me and Pino (John Turturro's character in the 1989 film) are straight' What really made Mookie take the job is that Sal finally put sisters and brothers up on the wall."
- First date for the first family: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama saw this movie on their first date.
- Driving Miss Daisy: While Do the Right Thing was on many critics' lists for the best film of 1989, it was not nominated for the Best Picture Oscar or Lee for Best Director. The movie that won the Best Picture honor that year was Driving Miss Daisy, which Lee has derided as being an example of the Magical Negro trope.
- The look of Bed-Stuy: The feel of the neighborhood, which is always hot, is informed by great cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and the production design of Wynn Thomas. At times it feels like the visual compositions for shooting a play, and bounces back and forth between characters. While at other times, everything is a Dutch angle (i.e. usually signifying an off-kilter world and situation). The sets and the colors used for the sets give the neighborhood a unique feel that is both real and yet almost fable-like.
The 22-minute film, “Do the Right Thing 25 Year Anniversary: A Beats Music Experience,” released through Beats Music’s YouTube page and other online outlets, takes a look at the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn that was featured in the 1989 movie and how it looks now. In the documentary, Lee revisits locations with cast member Danny Aiello and production designer Wynn Thomas.